Coyotes still howl on the Barber County prairie.
Cindy Grady noted this just days after the Anderson Creek fire rolled across southern Kansas. Helping her father, David Johnson, feed cattle on the singed prairie in late March, she noted that the few rabbits she was seeing seemed to stick out in the charred grass, which made them – and the newborn calves – more vulnerable.
But nearly a month later, the grasses are greening. Johnson, who was building fences after the fire – along with some that were washed out last week after four inches of rain last weekend overfilled nearby Dog Creek – said he’s beginning to see turkey and a few deer on the newly emerging grasses.
With the financial and labor-intensive burden facing ranchers in the 400,000-acre Anderson Creek fire – from thousands of miles of fences to outbuildings, homes and cattle – the effects of the fire on wildlife can be overlooked.
After all, there are so many other things to worry about, said Ken Brunson, the Kansas Nature Conservancy’s Red Hills coordinator.
Obviously, he said, “its not our worry right now” as ranchers are trying to recover financially and emotionally from the wildfire.
Yet, he said, if there is a spring wildfire, this one happened at the right time, as most ground-nesting birds hadn’t started nesting yet. That includes migrating birds, most of which hadn’t made it back into the area. Others, including prairie chickens, would most likely renest if they had already nested.
However, with the wildfire’s intensity and scope, there are most likely some losses to wildlife, said Brunson, who lives not far from the fires in Pratt County.
“Fortunately, the things that can run fast and fly, you can assume they did pretty well,” he said, but added he did see a few deer that were singed on his travels through ranches after the fire. “We have to assume deer did OK. They can run fast and run far.”
“Birds, including the turkeys, are capable of escaping,” he added.
Meanwhile, Brunson said, while temperatures reached 80 degrees on the March 23 day of the fire and some garter snakes might have been slithering, many amphibians and reptiles probably weren’t out yet. Small animals, like moles, gophers, kangaroo rats and even rabbits, burrowed into the ground.
Not that some aren’t worried about deer and turkey. Rick Lambert, who has Buster’s Outfitters in Sun City, said he didn’t know how such a massive fire couldn’t have hurt wildlife numbers.
“You can’t run forever,” he said, adding that the fire was south of him. Only time will tell on the losses.
Johnson said he hadn’t found any dead deer, but had found some porcupines and squirrels. A fellow rancher found a raccoon up in a tree. It had tried to escape the blaze.
Those are the animals that probably had the most trouble, said Brunson. Mid-sized mammals like raccoons, opossums and porcupines, all of which don’t burrow, would have had a hard time escaping.
“Those animals were the ones most vulnerable,” he said. “They had the biggest chance of getting caught up in it.”
“A lot of times, porcupines and coons will go into the trees,” Brunson said. “But they would have had to get into a pretty big cottonwood tree in some of those draws to escape.”
But, all in all, the prairie will rebloom, he said.
“Wildlife have put up with fires for many, many thousands – if not millions – of years here,” he said. “Even if they are affected locally, in the long run, they will come back and, because of the revival of the prairie, they will be in even better shape.”
And, like the cattle, even the prairie dogs will love the new fresh grass growth, Brunson said. Meanwhile, thousands of cedar trees – a water-intensive invasive species that had overtaken pasture lands here – were killed. Water is already coming back in creeks and canyon streams where there was massive tree kill.
“If the rangeland is healthy, it will reflect up the food chain,” he said. “Bottom line for the burn, in the long term, it will be really good for the prairie – both aquatically and terrestrially. Once the ranchers get back on their feet and get the fence built, they will have a good range land if we can count on a little bit of precipitation.”
And rain has finally been falling after the dry winter and spring. Johnson said he received three inches of rain on April 16 alone.
While it was enough to overfill Dog Creek and the Medicine River and wash out some of Johnson’s fence, it was also much-needed.
As he built fence last week, Johnson already was seeing the new growth bloom more vibrantly amid the ashes, thanks to the moisture.
“We really needed this,” he said. “The country will really pop now.”